ROME – Italy’s Constitutional Court has blocked a proposal for a referendum on euthanasia and assisted suicide on grounds that there were not sufficient protections for the weak and vulnerable, meaning advocates must go back to the drawing board.

Euthanasia has been a big point of discussion for Italian lawmakers over the past year, with citizens pushing for the referendum and lawmakers attempting to pass legislation that regulates the practice of assisted suicide in the country.

In 2019 Italy’s Constitutional Court partially decriminalized assisted suicide under certain conditions, requiring local health authorities and an ethics board to approve each request, yet they ruled at the same time that parliament should pass a law regulating the practice.

The Italian parliament, which is currently debating a draft assisted suicide bill, has yet to pass that legislation.

Last summer supporters of euthanasia gathered 1.4 million signatures – three times the 500,000 signatures required – to petition the Constitutional Court to approve a national referendum on assisted suicide, making it legally available to those who wish to avail themselves of it.

The signatures and legal arguments were submitted to the court last week, and deliberations on the referendum began Tuesday.

In Tuesday’s session, the Italian Constitutional Court shot down the proposed referendum on grounds that it did not include enough protections for the weak and vulnerable.

The court said in a press release that the proposed referendum would not guarantee “the minimum constitutionally necessary protection of human life in general, with particular reference to the weak and vulnerable.”

Under current Italian law, anyone who assists another person commit suicide can be jailed for 5-12 years.

With the Constitutional Court’s ruling Tuesday, it is now up to the Italian parliament to pass a law on euthanasia, or a new campaign can be launched to put forward a different referendum proposal that would meet the court’s demands.

Last week, Italy’s Lower House began discussing a draft law that would allow terminally ill patients to access assisted suicide through the country’s national health system, and which would protect doctors from lawsuits.

Italy’s political parties are still deeply divided on the bill, with the bulk of support coming from the center-left and most opposition coming from the center-right, meaning last week’s discussion ended in a deadlock.

Lawmakers illustrated the roughly 200 proposed amendments to the bill, but none were voted on, and discussion on the bill itself was postponed and will open again Thursday.

Advocates of the bill argue that assisted suicide should be available for patients suffering incurable diseases or intolerable pain who already have palliative care, while opponents say the law would not only violate Christian principles, but also the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors to treat the sick.

In a statement following the court’s decision Tuesday, the Italian Bishops’ Conference praised the decision, saying “It is a very specific invitation to never marginalize the commitment of society as a whole to offer the necessary support to overcome or alleviate the situation of suffering or hardship.”

Quoting Pope Francis’s own condemnation of assisted suicide during his Feb. 9 general audience, the bishops said ”Life is a right, not death, which must be accepted, not administered.”

In this sense, “More attention must be paid to those who, in conditions of fragility or vulnerability, ask to be treated with dignity and accompanied with respect and love,” they said.

Antonio Brandi, president of the Pro Vita & Famiglia, which opposes the referendum and the proposed bill, said the court’s decision to block the referendum “has indicated a path for the minimum constitutionally necessary protection of human life, inviolable even with the consent of the person concerned.”

He asked lawmakers to reject the draft assisted suicide bill, called the “Bazoli Consolidated Text” after the lawmaker who presented it, saying the law has “a clear imprint of euthanasia.”

With discussion of the bill resuming Thursday afternoon, Brandi said it is “absurd” that the parties backing the bill, the Partita Democratica and the Movimento 5 Stelle, appear to view the law as “compensation” for the failed attempt at a referendum, saying, “it seems that at the end of this story someone must still die!”

“It is a very sad policy that encourages death,” Brandi said, noting that many citizens are asking the State for greater investments in palliative care and social services for the suffering, the elderly, and their families, “so that they can live with dignity and not get killed out of desperation.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen